Police urge drivers to learn about Beltway changes

November 21, 2012

The ramp in the middle of the Beltway leads to the new Tysons access point at the Westpark Drive bridge. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

Road crews extended the lane markings at the southern entrance to the new Capital Beltway express lanes. But Virginia state police also are asking that people in the D.C. area have their holiday visitors familiarize themselves with the new Beltway traffic patterns.

If they plan to use the west side of the Beltway in Virginia, all they really have to do is watch the overhead signs telling them that the entrance ramp to the high-occupancy toll lanes is on the far left. If they should miss the signs and mistakenly enter the express lanes, tell them not to panic and make a sudden maneuver, which could cause a crash.

There’s a very helpful video on YouTube that shows a full trip through the northbound express lanes. This drive-cam view was made over the weekend, before the markers were extended, but during the first minute, you can see all the signs drivers must pass by to reach the lanes.

Most of the long-distance holiday traffic that will pass through the D.C. region while heading for other destinations will stick with I-95 and use the east side of the Beltway, taking the Wilson Bridge across the Potomac River. Travel on the east side should be much improved this holiday season thanks to the full opening of the THRU and LOCAL lanes, eliminating the notorious bottleneck at the Telegraph Road interchange.

On the west side, most drivers will be sticking with the old familiar lanes, rather than the new HOT lanes on the left side. But holiday shoppers bound for Tysons should consider using them to reach the Westpark Drive bridge access point. It will put them in a good position to reach the mall parking areas.

The complaints I’ve received about the HOT lanes setup focused on the access points at interchanges. Drivers heading west on Route 7 toward Tysons said they were surprised to see the left lane become a turn lane onto the express lanes. Drivers on Gallows Road think the signal lights at that access point need adjustment to smooth the flow of traffic.

One driver did write in to say he was confused at the northern entrance to the express lanes. He was driving south and saw a sign indicating the E-ZPass EXPRESS lanes were ahead. He took that to mean his left lane was going to become an express lanes, so he moved right.

He knows now that isn’t the case. The express lanes are new lanes in the middle of the Beltway. None of the four regular lanes was taken away to create them.

Here are a few of our postings and stories that may help, whether you’re briefing friends and family or figuring out a route using the new lanes.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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